The careers of women in the workplace continue to come on in leaps and bounds, but there is one area in which they are still massively under-represented: engineering. Just 16% of engineering graduates are women, and they make up just 12% of engineering professionals in the country as a whole1.

Caroline Spillane is Director General of Engineers Ireland, the professional membership body for engineers in Ireland, having previously been the Chief Executive Officer at the Medical Council of Ireland. She is spearheading attempts to encourage greater gender diversity within the profession.

“We want as many people as possible to consider a career in engineering. But there is a dearth of women,” says Caroline.

There is more can be done by all of us – parents, teachers and society generally.

“Women largely remain an untapped resource in the engineering profession and our research highlights that the view within the sector is that more can be done by all of us – parents, teachers and society generally – to break down the barriers to young women entering the industry.” 

One crucial issue is to start encouraging girls to study STEM (science, technology, maths and engineering) subjects as early as possible, preferably from the age of around five. “We must continue to inspire students at primary and post-primary levels to equip themselves with an adequate knowledge of STEM. Children – young girls especially – need to learn about the career possibilities in engineering early on, and they need role models.

“Through our STEPS Programme - funded under Science Foundation Ireland’s Discover programme Call - we have been working on a number of initiatives that target students, including Engineers Week and a schools visit programme with volunteer role models.

“Engineering Your Future is another, incredibly popular initiative that we support in third-level institutes nationwide. This week-long, hands-on programme is designed to give Transition Year students a meaningful, practical insight into engineering at third level and as a career,” says Caroline.

“This year, eight third level institutes will host over 400 students. Students will learn about the disciplines and technologies making up the diverse world of engineering, meet engineers at various stages in their careers, and experience what engineers do on a daily basis through industry visits, which can also help girls to better understand the exciting opportunities ahead of them and the impact engineering has on Irish society.”

A man in a hard hat no longer represents the reality of engineering.

There have been some positives. Engineering 2018, a report by Engineers Ireland, revealed that total higher-level STEM subject sittings by female students have increased to 41% for the Junior Certificate and 43% for the Leaving Certificate.

The total number of STEM sittings at Junior Certificate higher-level increased by 16% over the past five years, with a 25% increase in the number of students taking higher-level Junior Certificate mathematics since 2012. There are also more girls studying biology, but greater progress needs to be made in applied mathematics, physics and chemistry.

There is also some emphasis put on the fact that the traditional image – of a man in a hard hat on a building site – no longer reflects the true reality of engineering today. The focus by those concerned about the diversity in engineering is now on so-called “female friendly” subjects such as the environment, energy and healthcare, all of which require the problem-solving skills of engineers.

“One thing that must be acknowledged, is that engineering is changing rapidly, and the old disciplines are blending,” says Caroline. “Technology is now a huge part of any skill set. And if you look at an area like healthcare, which now involves biomedical devices, a huge number of engineers are involved.

We have to show girls that a career in engineering can take them in all sorts of different directions and encourage them to stay in the profession and grow their careers.

“Girls also need to realise that engineering is about design creativity these days,” says Caroline. “It exists in whole areas of art and design. Girls like to collaborate, and they need to be shown that engineering needs teamwork, which they enjoy.”

Girls are also encouraged to join coding clubs after school. There are initiatives to get them interested during the summer holidays. Engaging in any form of extra-curricular activity will ultimately stand them in good stead. Projects involving renovation, refurbishment, mechanics and even running their own business and engaging in the arts could all contribute to a future in engineering. “It will show future employers they are a rounded individual,” Caroline concluded.

 

1 According to Engineering 2018, a report from Engineers Ireland.